U.S. Navy carrier air wings are not effectively managing their time, and this could cost America dearly given the centrality of the carrier to U.S. naval operations. There is a yawning gap between the desires of commanders and actual capabilities.
Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons ought to be specialized in either air-to-surface strike or air-to-air combat. There is not enough time for squadrons to excel in both. Without this course correction, air wings and their carriers could become floating targets requiring defense but unable to strike back.
How did this happen? The current portfolio of missions is too bloated given the limited training time available. Squadrons exacerbate this time management problem by disproportionately focusing on air-to-air combat proficiency. And lastly, air wings are clinging to an outdated multi-mission mindset that won’t work against America’s most dangerous enemies.
Aircraft carriers’ strategic messaging capability, limited availability, and firepower make them precious to combatant commanders, but threat advancements are decreasing their value with each passing year. Navy leaders, including former U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Philip S. Davidson, have explained that naval forces should possess long-range offensive capabilities to remain relevant. The Navy has purchased the AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and commanders have increased demand for practice strikes against simulated enemy warships to ensure carriers achieve that intent.
The Navy intends the AGM-158C “to play a significant role in ensuring military access to the ocean and littorals” despite its limited numbers and multi-million dollar price tag. Commanders are counting on carrier-based strike fighters to deliver very visible effects with this weapon. This context explains why these missions have become so important to naval commanders. The AGM-158C’s effects will impact strategic and operational decision makers beyond the tactical level.
Strike fighters have other missions to prepare for as well. Advancing enemy jets and air defense systems mean that air wings should rebuild lost institutional knowledge for pushing into dangerous combat environments. Simultaneously, carrier-based fighters must defend their ship from enemy attack. Each of these tasks could be a full-time job.
Air wings embark with four strike fighter squadrons. The “Air Wing of the Future,” which will soon become standard, includes one squadron of two-seat F/A-18Fs, two of single-seat F/A-18Es, and one of F-35C Lightning IIs. Wings that have not yet received the F-35C get an additional F/A-18 squadron. The missions described above translate to three categories of tactical training for aircrews: maritime strike, air-to-surface, and air-to-air. Maritime strike involves attacking enemy naval vessels with the AGM-158C and other sophisticated weapons. Air-to-surface includes conventional strikes, suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support, and proficiency with numerous munitions. Air-to-air is divided into two major subcategories: defensive protection and offensive tactics intended to win air superiority.
Large-force employments combine these efforts using numerous airplanes. These missions require extensive planning and coordination with other naval or joint assets. When launched from the carrier, large-force exercises require a commitment of eight to 10 of the air wing’s 34 to 44 Super Hornets to the tanker role, which negatively impacts the force by reducing the number of combat aircraft and experienced aviators available. Additionally, deployed wings must provide jets for ongoing operations like Operation Inherent Resolve and at least six F/A-18s as tankers for routine flights.
Expansive Obligations Overwhelm Squadrons
The current portfolio of missions is too large for the strike fighter force. Every F/A-18 squadron trains for all of the missions listed above while operationally deployed. During deployments, commanders often test their units’ capabilities by rehearsing large-force exercises. Squadrons are required to complete these exercises, service-mandated readiness training, and qualification requirements at the same time. These requirements are intended to build combat readiness. Instead, squadrons are worn out as they struggle to complete a huge number of training missions while meeting operational demands. As an example, while deployed to U.S. Central Command in 2020 to 2021, Carrier Air Wing 17 concurrently supported Operation Inherent Resolve, multinational exercises, patrols near Iran, F/A-18 tactical qualification programs, service-mandated training, and large-force employment rehearsals. There is not enough time for aviators to accomplish all of these missions and develop true proficiency.
Training requirements are poorly aligned. While qualification programs and large-force exercises are updated regularly, many service-mandated requirements oblige squadrons to train for obsolete weapons or tactics. This incoherence forces squadrons to expend sorties on training that does not improve their usefulness to commanders. Aligning and reducing these competing requirements would be more helpful than increased resources or flight time. Otherwise, wings will continue developing broad, shallow, and redundant capabilities rather than deep expertise.
Additional factors further reduce air wing capability. Squadrons are suffering from a long-predicted exodus of mid-career officers and training delays that have slashed pilot production by 50 percent over the last several years. Squadrons struggle to fully staff billets, leaving them low on qualified flight leads. The requirement that tankers be flown by senior aviators increases the workload on the few flight leads available. Training programs require that junior aviators complete numerous graded flights to achieve qualifications. Each of these missions must be instructed by a senior aviator and consumes resources.
At first glance, these seem to be service issues. However, the greatest contributor to time shortages and expanded training requirements is likely the decades-long demand for extended force presence by operational commanders. High demand prevents squadrons from building readiness. Reduced demand for carrier presence by combatant commanders would ease the problem but is unlikely in the current strategic environment.
Air-to-Air Emphasis Exacerbates Problems
Uniformly high investment in air-to-air training by all strike fighter squadrons exacerbates the air wing’s problem. Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations warns units to reduce “laborious planning” and develop a series of pre-crafted plans to “train with before they are assigned specific missions.” Over-emphasis on air combat precludes such preparedness. Each squadron is so focused on demanding air-to-air training flights that they fail to solidify the institutional knowledge necessary to quickly provide offensive strikes.
When wings are ordered to plan a large-force strike, squadrons stop their individual air-to-air training, group together, and evenly divide responsibilities for the coming mission. Each squadron will provide jets for air-to-air, air-to-surface, maritime strike, and tanking roles. This results in aviators from each squadron attempting to employ complex weapons that they have rarely practiced with. The current model risks introducing extended planning, reduced proficiency, and employment errors. A designated air-to-surface squadron in charge of creating plans and practicing with unique weapons would be far more effective.
Training programs developed by F/A-18 tacticians place more emphasis on air combat than on any other mission due to the high difficulty and increasing threats inherent to that area. Of the 12 flights that comprise the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program, the first stage of pre-deployment workups, seven are air-to-air specific, with four focused on fleet defense. Conversely, there are only five ground attack flights, just two of which are focused on suppressing enemy air defenses. Maritime strike comprises a single simulator event and no flights. Squadrons spend at least 60 percent of their resources on air combat training and 33 percent specifically on fleet defense during this foundational phase. Each spends almost no time on maritime strikes and only 17 percent on suppression of enemy air defenses. Later workup training focuses more on large-force strikes, but task-sharing and heavy emphasis on the missions’ air-to-air components ensures that squadrons continue to develop broad but shallow capabilities. This increase in the proportion of air-to-air events absorbs time that a dedicated attack squadron could use to practice offensive strikes.
Using the two-seat F/A-18F in the same capacity as the F/A-18E exacerbates the time problem even further. Wings are not harnessing the expanded size of F/A-18F squadrons, which feature approximately 30 aircrew members rather than the F/A-18E’s 12 to 15, to focus on more planning-intensive strike missions. Neither are wings using F/A-18F weapons systems officers to achieve expertise in complicated air-to-surface weapons. These factors risk delayed mission planning and execution if a real strike is ordered.
The Modern Battlespace
Threats are getting more dangerous and the Navy has acknowledged that the Super Hornet will have a hard time keeping up. Commanders have resisted specialization so far because the ability of any plane on the flight deck to perform any mission provides tremendous flexibility. Commanders should give up that flexibility to give F/A-18s a fighting chance against modern enemies by specializing.
The flexible, multi-role fighter/attack concept that produced the Super Hornet matured in the 1990s and 2000s when U.S. aircrews held a significant air-to-air advantage over adversaries. During the Global War on Terror, permissive skies allowed crews to drop precision bombs with little opposition. There was low demand for long-range attacks against enemy warships.
Those conditions have changed. As former U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School commander Christopher Papaioanu explains, “The Navy’s current combat systems are relatively equal to those of our peer adversaries, so fighter tactics have become more complex to ensure they remain effective.” Likewise, as discussed previously, advanced enemy air defense systems require aircrews employ sophisticated weapons from further away to avoid losses.
Increasing danger undermines the advantage of high sortie-generation, which is the traditional benefit of having identical F/A-18 squadrons. High sortie-generation enables many short missions in quick succession. For decades, air wings supported operations by launching a large quantity of strike missions into poorly defended skies. Future combat is unlikely to allow operations of this kind.
Strikes against peer adversaries don’t benefit from identical squadrons or high sortie-generation. Commanders will oversee a smaller quantity of longer attacks against a few important targets. In large-force exercises, wings launch almost all of their aircraft to support just one or two strikes. Once those jets leave the carrier deck with specific types of weapons locked on their wings, they are committed to their assigned roles. Flexibility is less valuable in these missions than expert performance of specialized roles against unforgiving threats.
Recommendation: Specialize F/A-18 Squadrons
Each F/A-18 squadron should have a primary specialty for large-force employments, with secondary and tertiary roles for contingencies. Each F/A-18 squadron in air wings with F-35C should be assigned by the wing commander to a specialization “pipeline” at the beginning of the pre-deployment workup cycle. This would incur no costs, require no new acquisitions, and capitalize on the specialization inherent in F-35C-equipped air wings. Those air wings that do not yet feature the F-35C could specialize or maintain the current model based on commanders’ prerogative.
Specialization would reduce and align F/A-18 qualification, service-mandated, and operational requirements. Narrowing these obligations would allow squadrons to develop more capability with the flight hours available. Squadrons would construct deep expertise and be better prepared to perform their heavily practiced specialization. Specialization would also free up senior aviators by reducing the number of training flights requiring their instruction. These changes would narrow the gap between wings’ advertised and actual capability.
The F/A-18F squadron would specialize in air-to-surface and maritime strikes. Reliance on weapons systems officers to plan and program complex employments would capitalize on the F/A-18F’s larger squadrons and two-person crews. Air defense suppression missions would be led by EA-18G Growlers and supported by F/A-18F aircrews. These flights would be supplemented with F/A-18Es by exception. F/A-18F crews would maintain secondary specialization in close air support and tertiary proficiency in defensive air combat. Air wings that feature a fourth F/A-18 squadron could specialize it as a second strike-focused unit.
F/A-18E squadrons would focus on air-to-air. Both squadrons would train for all air combat missions, but one would lead defensive actions while the other would lead offensive flights. Higher fuel capacity, single-pilot-friendly radar ergonomics, and smaller squadrons make the F/A-18E optimal for this mission. F/A-18E pilots would maintain secondary specialization in suppression of enemy air defenses and tertiary proficiency in close air support. All F/A-18 squadrons would equally share the burden of aerial refueling until the MQ-25 assumes that role.
Some may argue that specialization would reduce air wing combat potential by decreasing crews and aircraft available to perform certain missions. This argument ignores that a degree of specialization has already been introduced by the F-35C. The Lightning II increases the wing’s ability to fight newer threats but deepens the time management problem for the F/A-18 force. The F-35C squadron has different training and readiness requirements and cannot share tanking and many other burdensome missions with the three remaining F/A-18 squadrons. Fighting as a team with the F-35C means new tactics and procedures that require even more training for Super Hornet crews. Keeping Super Hornets flexible while introducing a specialized F-35C squadron further overwhelms the air wing.
Others may argue that specialization is irrelevant because of the carrier’s presumed low odds of survival against advanced threats. They argue that the carrier is vulnerable and will be ineffective regardless of the airplanes it carries. Proponents of this argument raise legitimate concerns but cannot wish away the carrier’s presence. The continued purchase of F/A-18s and large carriers by the U.S. government ensures that air wings will participate in any foreseeable war. Alternative operational concepts and next-generation strike aircraft are still years away. For now, carriers are the centerpiece of American naval power. Specialization will provide a more formidable carrier that can land some punches.
Still others argue that air-to-air training should not be decreased, even with specialization, because it teaches advanced handling and offers more dynamic challenges than attack missions. They argue that traditional air-to-surface missions like close air support should be reduced instead. The benefits of air-to-air training are real, which is why F/A-18Fs would still practice some defensive air-to-air tactics and assist with fleet defense. However, equally high emphasis on air-to-air by all squadrons does not provide adequate return on investment due to the rarity of air combat in recent decades and its unclear future relevance. Similarly, the continued use of aircraft carriers for contingency operations requires that wings maintain some close air support capability despite that mission’s questionable relevance in the Indo-Pacific. Air-to-surface squadrons would keep close air support alive and free up time for F/A-18Es to focus on air-to-air. Combining advanced strike and suppression by teams of F/A-18Fs and EA-18Gs with air-to-air F/A-18Es would provide commanders with a balanced wing prepared to deal with evolving challenges.
The carrier air wing’s F/A-18 squadrons should be specialized to solve the time management problem with the weapons and aircraft on-hand. The requirement for F/A-18 squadrons to maintain a bloated mission portfolio precludes the development of deep expertise. Too much focus on air-to-air combat seriously degrades the wing’s striking power. Using the larger F/A-18F squadron for specialization in air-to-surface and maritime strike missions would develop attack proficiency while allowing F/A-18E squadrons to practice challenging air-to-air missions more intensively.
The Super Hornet promised a cost-effective alternative to aging and expensive platforms during the 1990s. It was never intended for peer combat. Commanders have to give up the flexibility that the F/A-18 has traditionally provided to make it more effective. Specialization will help to provide commanders with the air wing they want in the shortest possible time. Without strike fighters ready for offense, the carrier exists just to defend itself.
Stephen Walsh is an active U.S. Navy F/A-18F weapons systems officer and Naval War College graduate. His views are his own and do not reflect the official views of the Defense Department, the Department of the Navy, or his chain of command.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Richard L.J. Gourley
https://warontherocks.com/2022/06/the-strike-fighter-time-management-problem/ The Strike Fighter Time Management Problem